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Winter Mulch Madness

Make sure to get your mulching done before plants start popping out in the spring!

By Frank Hyman, Urban Farm contributor


Photo by Frank Hyman

Set up a schedule for mulching so your spring vegetables don't suffer.

Sticking to a yearly schedule cuts the workload in our garden. By Valentine’s Day, we mulch perennial vegetables, like asparagus, Solomon’s seal, sunchokes and fiddlehead ferns. All these plants are dormant in winter, which makes the mulching go faster; just dump a wheelbarrow load, and spread it with a rake. The crowns of the fiddlehead ferns (also called ostrich fern) are above ground, so don’t smother them, or they’ll rot. The other three have crowns below ground, so mulch with abandon.

If you have snow-bound winters, you’ll want to set a different deadline. In any event, getting perennial vegetable beds (and perennial fruit or ornamental beds) mulched before plants jump out of the ground in spring is the key.

This practice leads to another goal: gathering and shredding tree leaves in time for a late-winter mulching.

Simply rake leaves onto a tarp, drag the tarp to a work area, and dump them. Then shred them with a mower, pitch-fork the shredded leaves into a wheelbarrow, and spread a 2-to-3-inch layer on the beds. Then go inside, whip up some hot chocolate, and skim the seed catalogs.

These cool-season tasks have many advantages:

  • No fallen tree leaves left to smother plants.
  • No expense for bagging leaves.
  • No expense for store-bought mulch.
  • No back aches — there’s no bending required.
  • Annual weeds and their seeds are suppressed by the mulch.
  • Dormant plants are out of the way.
  • Plants are well mulched before hot weather shows up.
  • We get the heaviest garden work done while the weather is cold and the exertion warms us.
  • We burn enough calories to justify pie!
Give us your opinion on Winter Mulch Madness.
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Found this on a webpage about mulching for the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources: "A second application may be needed in autumn after the first frost to reduce heaving which breaks tree roots and leads to winter injury." And given that nature has mulch around it's plants year round, I don't see how applying an organic mulch of shredded leaves (once they're done falling) after first frost and well before spring is going to derail a garden. Also, nowhere in the post does it say apply in 'early spring' anyway.I recommend in the south that people apply mulch between Christmas and Valentines, which even in the south is winter. Also I advised people in colder climates to adjust their schedule as necessary. All pretty reasonable advice I would think. Sorry you feel differently--you may want to read the post with more care. Thanks for commenting.
Frank Hyman, Durham, NC
Posted: 1/16/2014 5:13:43 PM
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 12/15/2012 7:23:52 AM
In the desert, I have to mulch my winter garden with straw, just so everything doesn't dry out too fast. Since we have mild winters, it's really not for heat retention until mid-January to early February. I use about 6 inches of straw and a row cover during that time, but it helps me by beginning the break-down of the straw when I toss it into the compost bin as the season wears on.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 10/15/2012 9:08:26 AM
Definitely works for our Northern California desert clime. I like to mulch before winter sets in and then when the snow comes I know my garden is all prepared for spring!
Galadriel, Lothlorien, ME
Posted: 8/24/2012 2:21:24 PM

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